Group Behavior

Learning Objectives

  • Illustrate when the presence of others is likely to result in groupthink, social facilitation, or social loafing

Groupthink

When in group settings, we are often influenced by the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors around us. Whether it is due to normative or informational social influence, groups have power to influence individuals. Another phenomenon of group conformity is groupthink. Groupthink is the modification of the opinions of members of a group to align with what they believe is the group consensus (Janis, 1972). In group situations, the group often takes action that individuals would not perform outside the group setting because groups make more extreme decisions than individuals do. Moreover, groupthink can hinder opposing trains of thought. This elimination of diverse opinions contributes to faulty decision by the group.

Dig Deeper: Groupthink in the U.S. Government

There have been several instances of groupthink in the U.S. government. One example occurred when the United States led a small coalition of nations to invade Iraq in March 2003. This invasion occurred because a small group of advisors and former President George W. Bush were convinced that Iraq represented a significant terrorism threat with a large stockpile of weapons of mass destruction at its disposal. Although some of these individuals may have had some doubts about the credibility of the information available to them at the time, in the end, the group arrived at a consensus that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and represented a significant threat to national security. It later came to light that Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction, but not until the invasion was well underway. As a result, 6000 American soldiers were killed and many more civilians died. How did the Bush administration arrive at their conclusions? Here is a video of Colin Powell discussing the information he had, 16 years after his famous United Nations speech, in which he spoke about how Iraq most certainly had materials to create weapons of mass destruction (“Colin Powell Says UN Presentation on Iraq ‘Fell on Me’,” 2017). Do you see evidence of groupthink?

Why does groupthink occur? There are several causes of groupthink, which makes it preventable. When the group is highly cohesive, or has a strong sense of connection, maintaining group harmony may become more important to the group than making sound decisions. If the group leader is directive and makes his opinions known, this may discourage group members from disagreeing with the leader. If the group is isolated from hearing alternative or new viewpoints, groupthink may be more likely. How do you know when groupthink is occurring?

There are several symptoms of groupthink including the following:

  • perceiving the group as invulnerable or invincible—believing it can do no wrong
  • believing the group is morally correct
  • self-censorship by group members, such as withholding information to avoid disrupting the group consensus
  • the quashing of dissenting group members’ opinions
  • the shielding of the group leader from dissenting views
  • perceiving an illusion of unanimity among group members
  • holding stereotypes or negative attitudes toward the out-group or others’ with differing viewpoints (Janis, 1972)

Given the causes and symptoms of groupthink, how can it be avoided? There are several strategies that can improve group decision making including seeking outside opinions, voting in private, having the leader withhold position statements until all group members have voiced their views, conducting research on all viewpoints, weighing the costs and benefits of all options, and developing a contingency plan (Janis, 1972; Mitchell & Eckstein, 2009).

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Group Polarization

Another phenomenon that occurs within group settings is group polarization. Group polarization (Teger & Pruitt, 1967) is the strengthening of an original group attitude after the discussion of views within a group. That is, if a group initially favors a viewpoint, after discussion the group consensus is likely a stronger endorsement of the viewpoint. Conversely, if the group was initially opposed to a viewpoint, group discussion would likely lead to stronger opposition. Group polarization explains many actions taken by groups that would not be undertaken by individuals. Group polarization can be observed at political conventions, when platforms of the party are supported by individuals who, when not in a group, would decline to support them. A more everyday example is a group’s discussion of how attractive someone is. Does your opinion change if you find someone attractive, but your friends do not agree? If your friends vociferously agree, might you then find this person even more attractive?

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Social Facilitation

Not all intergroup interactions lead to the negative outcomes we have described. Sometimes being in a group situation can improve performance. Social facilitation occurs when an individual performs better when an audience is watching than when the individual performs the behavior alone. This typically occurs when people are performing a task for which they are skilled. Can you think of an example in which having an audience could improve performance? One common example is sports. Skilled basketball players will be more likely to make a free throw basket when surrounded by a cheering audience than when playing alone in the gym (Figure 1). However, there are instances when even skilled athletes can have difficulty under pressure. For example, if an athlete is less skilled or nervous about making a free throw, having an audience may actually hinder rather than help. In sum, social facilitation is likely to occur for easy tasks, or tasks at which we are skilled, but worse performance may occur when performing in front of others, depending on the task.

A photograph shows a basketball game.

Figure 1. The attention of the crowd can motivate a skilled athlete. (credit: Tommy Gilligan/USMA)

Social Loafing

Another way in which a group presence can affect our performance is social loafing. Social loafing is the exertion of less effort by a person working together with a group. Social loafing occurs when our individual performance cannot be evaluated separately from the group. Thus, group performance declines on easy tasks (Karau & Williams, 1993). Essentially individual group members loaf and let other group members pick up the slack. Because each individual’s efforts cannot be evaluated, individuals become less motivated to perform well. For example, consider a group of people cooperating to clean litter from the roadside. Some people will exert a great amount of effort, while others will exert little effort. Yet the entire job gets done, and it may not be obvious who worked hard and who didn’t.

As a college student you may have experienced social loafing while working on a group project. Have you ever had to contribute more than your fair share because your fellow group members weren’t putting in the work? This may happen when a professor assigns a group grade instead of individual grades. If the professor doesn’t know how much effort each student contributed to a project, some students may be inclined to let more conscientious students do more of the work. The chance of social loafing in student work groups increases as the size of the group increases (Shepperd & Taylor, 1999).

Interestingly, the opposite of social loafing occurs when the task is complex and difficult (Bond & Titus, 1983; Geen, 1989). Remember the previous discussion of choking under pressure? This happens when you perform a difficult task and your individual performance can be evaluated. In a group setting, such as the student work group, if your individual performance cannot be evaluated, there is less pressure for you to do well, and thus less anxiety or physiological arousal (Latané, Williams, & Harkens, 1979). This puts you in a relaxed state in which you can perform your best, if you choose (Zajonc, 1965). If the task is a difficult one, many people feel motivated and believe that their group needs their input to do well on a challenging project (Jackson & Williams, 1985). Given what you learned about social loafing, what advice would you give a new professor about how to design group projects? If you suggested that individuals’ efforts should not be evaluated, to prevent the anxiety of choking under pressure, but that the task must be challenging, you have a good understanding of the concepts discussed in this section. Alternatively, you can suggest that individuals’ efforts should be evaluated, but the task should be easy so as to facilitate performance. Good luck trying to convince your professor to only assign easy projects!

The table below summarizes the types of social influence you have learned about in this module.

Table 1. Types of Social Influence
Type of Social Influence Description
Conformity Changing your behavior to go along with the group even if you do not agree with the group
Compliance Going along with a request or demand
Normative social influence Conformity to a group norm to fit in, feel good, and be accepted by the group
Informational social influence Conformity to a group norm prompted by the belief that the group is competent and has the correct information
Obedience Changing your behavior to please an authority figure or to avoid aversive consequences
Groupthink Group members modify their opinions to match what they believe is the group consensus
Group polarization Strengthening of the original group attitude after discussing views within a group
Social facilitation Improved performance when an audience is watching versus when the individual performs the behavior alone
Social loafing Exertion of less effort by a person working in a group because individual performance cannot be evaluated separately from the group, thus causing performance decline on easy tasks

Watch It

Consider examples of social influence and groupthink and review the concepts you learned previously about conformity and obedience in the following CrashCourse video:

You can view the transcript for “Social Influence: Crash Course Psychology #38” here (opens in new window).

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Glossary

Asch effect: group majority influences an individual’s judgment, even when that judgment is inaccurate
group polarization: strengthening of the original group attitude after discussing views within the group
groupthink: group members modify their opinions to match what they believe is the group consensus
informational social influence: conformity to a group norm prompted by the belief that the group is competent and has the correct information
normative social influence: conformity to a group norm to fit in, feel good, and be accepted by the group
obedience: change of behavior to please an authority figure or to avoid aversive consequences
social facilitation: improved performance when an audience is watching versus when the individual performs the behavior alone
social loafing: exertion of less effort by a person working in a group because individual performance cannot be evaluated separately from the group, thus causing performance decline on easy tasks

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